Stephens, Thomas (DNB00)
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STEPHENS, THOMAS (1821–1875), Welsh historian and critic, born at Pont Nedd Fechan, Glamorganshire, on 21 April 1821, was the son of Evan Stephens, shoemaker, by Margaret, daughter of William Williams, minister of the unitarian church grammar school at Neath. About the commencement of 1835 he was apprenticed to a chemist at Merthyr Tydfil, where subsequently, on his own account, he successfully carried on the business until his death.
From his earliest days Stephens devoted himself to the study of Welsh history. His taste was first stimulated by Eisteddfod competitions, in which, from 1840 onwards, be was awarded prizes for historical essays. In 1848 he produced ‘An Essay on the Literature of Wales during the Twelfth and Succeeding Centuries,’ which won him the prize offered in the name of the Prince of Wales at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod, thereby defeating Thomas Price (1787–1848) [q. v.], a Welsh historian of repute. The essay was published at the expense of Sir John Guest, under the title of ‘The Literature of the Kymry’ (Llandovery, 1849, 8vo), and was enthusiastically received by the best Celtic scholars, including Count Villemarqué, Henri Martin, and Professor Schulz, who thereafter corresponded regularly with Stephens. In later years Matthew Arnold praised this ‘excellent book’ (Celtic Literature, p. vi). Schulz, under his nom de guerre of San Marte, brought out in 1864 a German translation of the work, entitled ‘Geschichte der wälschen Literatur vom xii bis zum xiv Jahrhundert’ (Halle, 8vo). A second edition, with the author's additions and corrections, so far as they could be utilised, was posthumously published, under the editorship of the Rev. D. Silvan Evans, in 1876 (London, 8vo), with a biography by B. T. Williams, and a portrait from a bust executed by Joseph Edwards for presentation to Stephens on behalf of the committee of the Merthyr library.
After 1848 Stephens won prizes for historical essays at every Eisteddfod at which he chose to compete, being, for example, awarded three prizes at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod in 1853. One of these was for an essay on ‘The History of Trial by Jury in Wales,’ which received the encomiums of the Chevalier Bunsen, who acted as adjudicator. For the Eisteddfod held at Llangollen in 1858 he wrote an essay in which he proved the unhistorical character of the Welsh claim to the discovery of America by Madoc ap Owen Gwynedd; but the Eisteddfod committee, influenced by John Williams ab Ithel, withheld the prize from Stephens on the quibbling pretext that he had written on the non-discovery instead of the discovery by Madoc. This essay was published in 1893 under the title ‘Madoc: an Essay on the Discovery of America by Madoc ap Owen Gwynedd in the Twelfth Century,’ edited by Mr. Llywarch Reynolds (London, 8vo). Stephens did not again compete at the Eisteddfod, though, at the request of that institution, he subsequently drew up a report, along with R. J. Pryse (Gweirydd ab Rhys), on a standard of Welsh orthography, ‘Orgraff yr Iaith Gymraeg’ (1859, 12mo). Stephens contributed a series of valuable articles in Welsh on the Triads to ‘Y Beirniad’ for 1861–3, in which he established their mediæval as opposed to their prehistoric origin; and in the course of seven articles in ‘Archæologia Cambrensis’ for 1851–3 he critically examined the poems traditionally ascribed to Taliesin. He left unpublished at his death a large number of manuscript essays, one of which, probably the most important, was edited by Professor Thomas Powel of Cardiff for the Cymmrodorion Society, and published in 1888 under the title ‘The Gododin of Aneurin Gwawdrydd: an English Translation, with copious Explanatory Notes, a Life of Aneurin, and several lengthy Dissertations illustrative of the Gododin and the Battle of Cattraeth’ (London, 8vo).
Stephens was almost the first native Welsh scholar of this century to apply a rigidly scientific method to the study of Welsh history and literature. His tendency was sceptical and iconoclastic, on which account he became highly unpopular with Welsh enthusiasts, though he enjoyed the confidence of competent critics. His opinions in other respects were also often unpopular. He evoked the hostility of dissenters by advocating, from 1847 onwards, a state-aided system of secular education. In politics he was a philosophical reformer. Among other institutions at Merthyr which largely owed their origin to him was the public library, of which he acted for twenty-five years as honorary secretary, and to which he bequeathed a valuable collection of books. He was high constable of the town for 1858, and in 1864 undertook the management of the ‘Merthyr Express.’
In 1870 overwork brought on paralysis, which, after repeated attacks, ended in his death on 4 Jan. 1875, when he was buried at the Cefn cemetery. He married, on 11 Sept. 1866, his cousin, Margaret Davis, a granddaughter of William Williams of Penrheolgerrig, who survives him (1898), but there was no issue. A bust by Joseph Edwards is at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.[The chief authority is the Life by B. T. Williams, Q.C., prefixed to the second edition of the Literature of the Kymry. To this is added a list of the manuscript essays and writings which Stephens left unpublished at his death. See also Archæologia Cambrensis, 4th ser. vi. 87, 196; Academy, January, 1875, vii. 62; Red Dragon, 1882, i. 3–18 (with portrait); Yr Ymofynydd, June 1895 (with portrait); Wilkins's History of Merthyr Tydfil, pp. 258–60.]